NRL Rd 16 - Sharks v Cowboys
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 29: Scott Drinkwater of the Cowboys runs the ball during the round 16 NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the North Queensland Cowboys at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium on August 29, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Time!

The Cowboys are in a rebuilding phase. After the extremely successful Paul Green led era, North Queensland will need a season or two before they become a premiership contender.

The building blocks are in place with the appointment of one-time assistant coach and last years interim Warriors head coach Todd Payten.

If Payten can bring the same success to the Cowboys as he was able to get out of a ravaged homesick Warriors team, the Cows will be very competitive in 2021.

Although Cowboys fans will need to be patient, Payten will need a season or two before the Townsville club can seriously challenge the more advanced playing squads of Penrith or Melbourne.

If the Cowboys can keep both Michael Morgan and Valentine Holmes fit, they have two players who can speed up the club’s fortunes.

NRL Rd 3 - Cowboys v Titans
TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA – MAY 29: Valentine Holmes of the Cowboys passes the ball during the round three NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the Gold Coast Titans at QCB Stadium on May 29, 2020 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

They will also need more from experienced players Esan Marsters, Jordan McLean, Josh McGuire and Coen Hess. All four were very inconsistent in 2020. This may have been due to the instability surrounding Green’s exit and injuries, but whatever the reason, they need to step up next year.

Jason Taumalolo, Scott Drinkwater, Francis Molo and Reece Robson all had good campaigns. If the Cowboys can get all noted players firing together in 2021 they can be a finals team.

Halfback is the most concerning position. Jake Clifford is set to join Newcastle in 2022 and will hope he doesn’t move south 12 months prior to his contracts beginning. If Payten can get the best out of 22-year-old next season, he can free up Morgan to play his natural game.

Alternatively, Morgan can be used at halfback with Drinkwater playing five-eighth. Drinkwater, predominately a fullback in his junior career, has made the move into the halves where he has easily comfortably taken on the responsibility.

The Cowboys look like they lack the experienced depth in the backline in particular. The centres look thin, other than Marsters they seem to be lacking the playing talent.

Led by metre-eater Taumalolo, their forwards look as good as any in the NRL. Robson looks like the one that got away from the St George Illawarra Dragons, classy and with speed he is very much in the Damien Cook mould.

WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA – JUNE 28: Jason Taumalolo of the Cowboys looks dejected after a Dragons try during the round 15 NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the North Queensland Cowboys at WIN Stadium on June 28, 2019 in Wollongong, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

With Holmes at the back the Cowboys spine will be settled once the half back position can be settled. That means Morgan needs some luck to stay injury free.

With Payten wisely assembling an experienced coaching staff with former St George Illawarra interim coach Dean Young and Bulldogs Interim coach Steve Georgallis, he has an knowledgeable team to guide the Cowboys into a new era.

He has the basis of a squad that will be competitive in 2021 with the potential to go beyond expectations. The Cowboys can definitely be in the running in 2021 but much depends on the fitness of Morgan and sharing the workload to ensure Taumalolo isn’t over burdened of carrying the team on his back again.

Whatever happens in 2021, the Cowboys will be a stronger proposition in the years to come if they can keep the core of the squad and add depth.